Recently I came across the Nicholl Fellowship, an initiative run by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (that’s the nice people who give out the Oscars, FYI), which invites amateur screenwriters from anywhere in the world to submit a feature-length screenplay to compete for one of several $35,000 bursaries, the idea being that in their fellowship year they have some financial wiggle room to take a step back from the 9 to 5 and produce a new script. (You also get invited to a very swanky luncheon in L.A…) There is a small fee to enter which pays for the time of the industry experts – and Academy members – who read and critique the entries, and the only entry requirement is that the entrant has earned less than $25,000 from screenwriting.
It’s a prestigious prize and one, I imagine, that’s not easily won. The deadline just closed for this year and last time I checked, they’d received upwards of 7,000 entries. The number increases every year, presumably as more and more people find about it, and more and more people put pen to paper. (Or finger to keyboard while Final Draft is on screen.) There’s been some notable winners: the screenplay for one of my Top 100 Favourite Movies, Arlington Road, was a Nicholl Fellowship winning script, and other notable winners include Jeffery Eugenides (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Middlesex) and Susannah Grant, who’d go onto win an Academy Award for her script Erin Brockovich. Finding Forrester, frequently cited in favourite-movies-about-writing-and-writers lists, was also a Nicholl Fellowship script.
But none of that was what struck me about the fellowship.
Also on their website is a section where you can catch up with past winners, a kind of ‘Where are they now?’ just for Nicholl Fellowship recipients. And yes, while a few of them are winning Pulitzers and winning both themselves and Julia Roberts Oscar statuettes, the vast majority of them are not. The vast majority of them are working on another screenplay.
Now maybe it’s just the way it’s worded, or maybe it’s because the best thing for a one-line bio is the name of the project you’re working on now and not the fifteen scripts you’ve finished that are languishing in a drawer, or maybe I just reading into this too much altogether, but it struck me as sad that all these people were the best, the absolute best, out of thousands of people at doing something, and yet here they are, years later, saying they are still working on their next project or admitting that they’ve moved on completely to something else.
Why haven’t they finished them?
Well… Pot Kettle Black Alert!
Now I certainly have not been proven to be the best at anything except consuming caffeine, online shopping and getting through TV show box-sets, but I have had some success. Since dramatically (and, perhaps, foolishly) quitting my job in the summer of 2009, I’ve self-published three full-length books and sold a few of them, done a whole load of speaking engagements, seminars and workshops and started to work on social media projects for a major publishing house. I’ve got to a place where I only need do book and writing-relating things full-time. I have a popular blog with lots of followers. I now know a good group of people in the publishing industry; I have contacts. I have a busy writing CV filled with evidence that I have an established readership and that I’m prepared to get out there and sell my books. And, perhaps because of this, in the past couple of weeks I found out that I’ve been offered a place to study for an English degree in one of the best and oldest English departments in the world, at the country’s most prestigious university.
(More on that another time. Right now it’s overshadowed by the fact that I have to move to another city this summer. STRESSFEST.)
But I still haven’t finished my novel.
I mean… I can’t even believe I am still in a position to write that sentence.
I still haven’t finished my novel.
What the fudge HAVE I been doing? Because all that stuff up there, in the paragraph above? That’s, like, maybe one year out of the last five, if you added up all the time it took. I put the first edition of Self-Printed together in a month. Backpacked‘s first draft took two weeks. I don’t blog or tweet or use Facebook anywhere near as much as I used to. And I don’t have a spouse, kids or a full-time job to worry about. My time is my own, more or less.
So what the hell have I been doing with it?
Publishing, however you’re doing it, can be an extremely frustrating endeavor. If you’re chasing a deal or an agent, you’re dependent on someone else’s ‘yes’. If you’re self-publishing, your success will depend on the reading tastes of the world at large, as well as things like timing, price, luck, etc. There’s little about the outcome, on either side, that you can really control, in the sense that you can say ‘Well, if I do x, y and z, I’ll definitely end up selling a trillion copies…’ But there’s one thing you can control, and none of the other stuff will happen if you don’t do it: finish your book.
Catherine’s Stressfest Summer 2014 officially begins on July 1st. I have until then to finish my novel, which is entirely feasible. I have to do it, because after that I’ll be moving, and after that I’ll be in school. I have no choice this time. It has to happen. It will happen.
Because for all the frustration, all the uncertainty, all the rejection, rewards and success — none of it, none of it, can happen if you don’t finish your book.
Let’s do this.
[UPDATE DECEMBER 2014: I finished it – and I got an agent!!! Woo-hoo!]
Are you haunting by unfinished work? What prevents you, do you think, from finishing it? Do you agree that you’d find the time if you truly wanted to? Let me know in the comments below…